Developing Talent within Varied Domains

Paula Olszewski-Kubilius
Rena Subotnik 
Frank Worrell

Is it advantageous or disadvantageous to specialize in a sport early?  What does it take to be an eminent chef these days? Is training for professions like medicine and software engineering different than for other domains? What differentiates talent in psychology versus mathematics?  Is acting a skill anyone can learn? Is high general intelligence important to success in all fields How important is creativity and technical proficiency in dance?

The field of gifted education is moving towards a greater focus on developing talent within varied domains. Scholars and practitioners recognize that talent in drawing is different and involves different types of abilities, different kinds of opportunities, and different paths toward excellence than talent in mathematics. Why is it important to understand how talent develops in different domains? We would argue that knowing the early signs of talent in a field and understanding what is necessary for its development will enable educators and parents to identify more talented children and ensure that they have the opportunities they need to develop their potential to the fullest degree possible.

Here are some insights from our collection of studies focused on different domains:


Early specialization in sport is not related to later elite performance, and in fact, diverse sport experience is better preparation for an elite career. Participation in an array of different sports, including informal peer play, helps develop a wide range of motor and physical skills that serve developing athletes better in the long run. Early specialization may result in burnout or injury and early success might lead athletes to rest on their laurels and not work on developing skills needed to transition to the next level of competition or performance. Notably, however, some athletic pursuits are traditionally early starting, such as gymnastics and figure skating, but these are interesting exceptions.


Mathematics is one of only a few fields where talent can emerge early, often signified by young children who view the world mathematically. In addition, mathematical reasoning ability can be developed by numerous interventions, including special classes, acceleration, clubs, and contests.  In contrast, interest in psychology typically doesn't emerge until the high school or undergraduate years after some kind of significant exposure to the field.  Despite these differences, mentoring and the ability to identify important problems to study are important to success in both fields.


What distinguishes professions such as medicine or software engineering from one another is that much of the training in software engineering occurs outside of formal education and while individuals are on the job.  Individuals can work as software engineers without any formal education with much of their high-level exposure to programming occurring within the workplace as they work in teams on projects.  On the other hand, medical doctors have intensive training before they start working with patients while continuing their training via internship, residency, and fellowship.  

Performing arts

Being a creative, aesthetically talented dancer will always trump being a technically proficient one, although training requires an enormous amount of disciplines practice. Contemporary dance requires greater improvisation on the part of the dancer, who often participates in designing the choreography. In contrast, ballet requires creative contributions on a smaller scale. The most important ability for a successful actor is spontaneity—being able to be spontaneous under imaginary circumstances, which can be developed further, only if a person has this innate ability.

Producing arts

The culinary arts have become increasingly “artified.” In other words, becoming an eminent chef requires developing a culinary signature, as well as the personality to interact effectively with patrons and the media. Drawing, which used to be the primary tool for aspiring artists, is an important domain of research into artistic talent but no longer plays a significant a role in arts training, having been replaced by conceptual work that does not require mastery of an expressive medium.

Across domains, the importance of general intelligence varies—with it being most important in academic fields and less so in the arts and sport.  In contrast, deliberate practice plays a greater role in performance fields such as dance, golf, and game sports.  In all fields, motivation and resiliency are essential, but the importance of charisma and leadership varies by domain and even with subfields of domains. 

If we know the abilities and skills required in different fields, we can not only direct children to those that match their individual interests, passions, and profiles of characteristics, but we can also actively help them to cultivate needed attributes to help them succeed in meeting their goals.

We will discuss these findings in the different domains and more in our Sunday morning presentation at the NAGC 66th Annual Convention, the “Psychology of High Performance: Developing Potential into Domain-Specific Talent.” 

Paula Olszewski-Kubilius is Director of the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University; Rena Subotnik is Director of the Center for Psychology in the Schools and Education at the American Psychological Association; and Frank Worrell is a Professor, Graduate School of Education, at the University of California.

The views expressed herein represent the opinion of the authors and are not necessarily the National Association for Gifted Children.